In the long history of UFO lore, the mysterious aerial phenomena have only ever been formally blamed for one death through official channels.
On January 7, 1948, a flight of four F-51D fighters led by USAF pilot Captain Thomas Mantell was directed to investigate an unidentified flying object by by control tower operators at Godman Air Force Base.
As Mantell closed in on his target he radioed his base, saying he could see “a metallic object or possibly the reflection of the Sun from a metallic object, and it is of tremendous size.”
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UFO hunters believe that an alien spacecraft had fired at Mantell’s World War Two-era fighter in the skies over Kentucky, blowing it apart in mid-air.
But a more likely explanation brings Mantell’s story right up to date.
Immediately after the shattered wreckage of Mantell’s F-51 was found on farmland near on Kentucky's border with Tennessee, the USAF released a statement that the pilot had been fooled by a daylight sighting of the planet Venus and climbed beyond his plane’s service ceiling.
Whatever he had seen had also been sighted from the ground.
The alert had initially been triggered by a report from the Kentucky Highway Patrol of a circular object, some 250–300 feet in diameter in the skies over Madisonville.
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Colonel Guy Hix, commander of Godman Army Airfield, confirmed the sightings. He described as "very white," and "about one fourth the size of the full moon … Through binoculars it appeared to have a red border at the bottom … It remained stationary, seemingly, for one and a half hours."
Observers at Clinton County Army Air Field in Ohio also sighted an object that had "the appearance of a flaming red cone trailing a gaseous green mist" and observed the object for around 35 minutes
Another military observer, stationed at Lockbourne Army Air Field in Ohio,saw something strange in the area. "Just before leaving it came to very near the ground, staying down for about ten seconds,” they reported.
Then whatever it was “climbed at a very fast rate back to its original altitude, 10,000 feet [3,000 m], leveling off and disappearing into the overcast heading 120 degrees. Its speed was greater than 500 mph [800 km/h] in level flight.
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It’s likely that all of those observers were mistaken, and whatever they saw was not a spacecraft.
But UFOlogists question whether a qualified pilot like Mantell, with 2,867 hours of flight experience, would make such a basic mistake.
Mantell was on his own in his last moments. One of the four planes had returned to base early with mechanical problems and the other two Mustangs broke off the pursuit because their oxygen tanks were low.
Mantell was confident that he had enough oxygen in his tanks to keep him conscious as he climbed further.
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But the most likely explanation for the mantle tragedy involves something that flew a great deal higher than any piston-engined fighter plane.
“The huge Skyhook balloon was developed by the United States Navy,” explains UFO researcher Nigel Watson.
“At launch it was about 20ft in diameter and as it reached 100,000ft it expanded to a massive 70ft in diameter and 100ft tall. They could be spotted at a distance of sixty miles away and high altitude winds could carry them at speeds of 150mph."
As far as the public was concerned, Skyhook was a scientific balloon that was used to study cosmic radiation and sunspot activity.
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But its true purpose however was to carry photographic reconnaissance equipment over the USSR and to carry out other top secret research projects including exploring the use of it to drop bombs. As the Skyhook flights increased to several hundred in 1952, the CIA encouraged the media to report sightings of the balloon as UFO encounters to confuse Soviet observers.
Balloon expert Luis Eduardo Pacheco says that the 1950s and 1960s was the golden era of ballooning with thousands of huge balloons like Skyhook being used in the Cold War – triggering UFO panics in the USA and Europe.
And, showing that we’ve moved on very little since the nervous Cold War period, sightings of balloons and drones are sparking widespread reports of an alien invasion even today.
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